Barbara Mae Watson, a diplomat and the first African-American and the first woman to serve as an Assistant Secretary of State, was born in 1918 in New York City to Violet Lopez Wilson, one of the founders of the National Council of Negro Women, and James S. Watson, the first black judge elected in New York State. She received her B.A. from Barnard College in 1943. In 1946 she founded a modeling agency, Barbara Watson Models, the first African American modelling agency in New York City, serving as the agency’s executive director until 1956. She received her law degree from New York Law School in 1962, after which she worked as an attorney for three New York City government agencies: the Board of Statutory Consolidation of the City of New York, the Office of the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York, and was the director of the New York City Commission to the United Nations from 1964-1966, when her career at the State Department began. Barbara M. Watson’s relationship with HIAS soon after she joined the United States Department of State in 1966, where she formed a particularly close friendship with Gaynor I. Jacobson, HIAS’ Executive Vice President, who also started in his position in 1966.
She headed the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs from 1966-1974 and 1977-1980, serving under Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. Barbara M. Watson was appointed ambassador to Malaysia in 1980, where she served until 1981, when she entered private law practice with two firms in Washington, D.C. which specialized in international law and business development and trade.
Watson’s work brought her into close contact with HIAS for many years and she also attended various HIAS lectures and conferences, including as the guest of honor at HIAS’ 88th annual meeting in 1972.
At the 1980 Annual Meeting, Gaynor I. Jacobson invited Watson as his personal guest in honor of his retirement, which took effect January 31, 1981. In a letter to Watson after the 1980 Annual Meeting, Jacobson included the below picture of Watson and her two “ardent admirers,” reflecting their long years of friendship.